Battle lines drawn ahead of White House social media summit

US President Trump has invited a number of social media commentators to a discussion about the current digital environment.

This is being largely interpreted as an anecdotal investigation into the nature of social media censorship, with Trump having repeatedly raised his concerns on the matter. The major social media platforms don’t seem to have been invited, however, instead a selection of independent journalists, commentators and activists will be asked about their online experiences.

The White House hasn’t published a list of attendees, so here’s our own, in no particular order, derived from information already in the public domain. We’ve also included the number of Twitter followers each attendee has to provide some measure of their online influence. The summit takes place tomorrow.

  • Tim Pool – YouTube Journalist – 352k
  • James O’Keefe – Independent Journalist – 548k
  • Ben Garrison – Political Cartoonist – 176k
  • Charlie Kirk – Activist – 1.16m
  • Ali Alexander – Activist – 95k
  • Scott Presler – Activist – 226k
  • Bill Mitchell – Broadcaster – 445k
  • Carpe Donctum – Activist – 122k
  • PragerU – YouTube Commentator – 271k
  • Heritage Foundation – Think Tank – 649k
  • Media Research Center – Media Watchdog – 157k
  • Christian Ziegler – Activist – 3k

It has not gone unnoticed that nearly all of those invited are at the conservative end of the US political spectrum and Trump is known to be concerned that online censorship tends to affect conservatives disproportionately. It’s presumably not a coincidence that most of these conservatives also seem to be committed Trump supporters.

The presence of the two journalists at the top of the list indicates this will be more than just a Trump supporter love-in, however. “This event will bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” a White House spokesperson is widely reported to have advised.

Pool has probably been chosen due to his high-profile grilling of Twitter on the Joe Rogan podcast, in which he argued some of its rules on speech it permits  are demonstrably biased against conservatives. Similarly O’Keefe’s organisation Project Veritas has recently claimed to have exposed similar political bias at Google.

So it seems clear that at least one of the primary purposes of this summit is to enable the US government to gather evidence of bias in social media censorship. Earlier this year the White House opened a web form inviting people to submit such evidence, so it’s possible this will have influenced who was invited too.

While much commentary has focused on the perceived political agenda of this summit, the absence of not only the big tech companies but big media too indicates another angle. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that social media censorship is increasingly biased against independent commentators and thus in favour of corporate, institutional, establishment voices.

Leftist independent commentator David Pakman has alleged in the video below that the YouTube recommendation algorithm has been changed in order to favour corporate over independent media. Most of the independents he cites are also leftist, indicating this isn’t a predominantly political move.

 

It is well documented that YouTube has been anxious about the effect of some of its more contentious contributors on revenues for some time and has implemented broad censorship in an apparent attempt to appease big advertisers. If there is bias in the recommendation algorithm in favour of corporate media it’s probably because advertisers also favour them, but every piece of arbitrary censorship seems to create as many problems as it solves.

Meanwhile, Twitter is where Trump spends much of his time and so is probably the platform he scrutinises most closely. A US appeals court recently ruled that it’s unconstitutional for Trump to block people on Twitter, but this precedent had led to other US politicians who have blocked people on Twitter being sued. Elsewhere Twitter’s recent decision to ban any comment that ‘dehumanizes others on the basis of religion’ seems destined to raise questions about selective enforcement.

Not to be out-done Facebook recently updated its policy regarding ‘violence and incitement’ with the guidance shown in the screenshot below.

Facebook policy screen

This seems to say that it’s OK to advocate high-severity violence (un-defined) against anyone Facebook considers to be a ‘dangerous individual’ or anyone said to be a violent criminal or sexual predator. Since Facebook explicitly identified several individuals as dangerous recently, some of those people have understandably interpreted this move as hostile to them.

That there is a growing body of evidence of a deeply flawed approach by social media companies to policing their platforms is undeniable. To what extent this involves political bias remains unclear, but Trump seems to think it does and, with the next US general election imminent, he seems increasingly disposed to bring the full force of the state against any tech companies deemed to be acting against the public, and his, interest. Those companies will doubtless be following this summit with interest.

We’ll leave you with Pool’s take on the whole thing.

 

YouTube CEO’s struggle session was futile

In her first public statements since last week’s censorship controversy YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki attempted to strike a balance between freedom of speech and censorship.

As a quick reminder: one YouTube user claimed to be the subject of homophobic harassment by another user and wanted them censored accordingly. YouTube initially said none of its policies had been violated but on further reflection decided to demonetize (stop serving ads, which are the primary source of revenue for YouTubers) the channel of the accused.

At a live event hosted by Recode – a tech site owned by Vox, which also employs the above complainant, Carlos Maza – Wojcicki insisted on making a public apology to ‘the LGBTQ community’ before answering any questions. This was presumably in response to critics from within that group of the decisions made, of which Maza himself remains one of the most persistent.

Wojcicki moved on to recap what had taken place, which consisted of two distinct but parallel events. The first was the announcement of measures YouTube is taking against ‘hate speech’, which had apparently been in the pipeline for a while. The second was Maza’s allegations and demands, which YouTube addressed separately.

For two such separate issues, however, there seemed to be a fair bit of overlap. Firstly it was revealed that YouTube had pre-briefed the media about the hate speech announcement, raising the possibility that Maza was aware of it when he made his allegations on Twitter. Secondly the decision to demonetize the offending channel coincided precisely with outcry at the original decision that none of its policies had been transgressed, despite that decision having apparently taken 5 days to make.

In the context of hate speech Wojcicki also mentioned that laws addressing it vary widely from country to country. This highlighted one of the central dilemmas faced by internet platforms, that they’re increasingly expected to police speech beyond the boundaries of legality. Their attempts to do so lie at the core of the impossible position that they’re now in.

The interviewer expressed sympathy about the impossibilities of censoring an open platform at such scale and Wojcicki could only say that YouTube is constantly striving to improve and pointed to recent pieces of censorship as proof that it’s doing so. She pushed back at the suggestion that YouTube moderate every upload before publication, saying a lot of voices would be lost. She pointed instead to the tiered model that allows for things like demonetization of contentious content.

This model was also used in defence of another couple of specific cases flagged up by the interviewer. The first concerned a recent cover story on the New York Times, the headline of which spoke of one YouTube user who found himself brainwashed by the ‘far-right’ as a result of recommendations from YouTube, but the substance of which indicated the opposite. Wojcicki said another tool they use is reducing the recommendations towards contentious content in order to make it harder to find.

The other case was of a US 14-year-old YouTuber called Soph, who recently got one of her videos taken down due to some of its content, but whose channel remains. The utter futility of trying to assess and potentially censor every piece of content uploaded to the platform was raised once more and, not for the first time, Wojcicki attempted to steer the conversation to the 99% of content on YouTube that is entirely benign.

Carlos Maza responded to the interview with the following tweet, inspired by a question from the audience querying the sincerity of Wojcicki’s apology to the LGBTQ community, to which she responded that she is really sincere. Maza’s tweet indicates he won’t be happy until anything perceived as harassment of ‘queer’ people is censored from YouTube.

You can see the full interview below. As well as the prioritised apology, this did seem like a good-faith attempt by Wojcicki to openly address the many complexities and contradictions faced by any censor. It seems very unlikely that her critics will have been swayed by her talk of nuance and context, however, and there is little evidence that this interview solved anything. Still, at least she gave it a go and if nothing else it will have been good practice for the many other such struggle sessions Wojcicki will doubtless have to endure in future.

 

YouTube squirms under the contradictions of its censorship

Having initially taken a position in favour of freedom of speech, YouTube has now lurched towards censorship following public pressure.

Yesterday we told you about the matter of Vox journalist Carlos Maza versus YouTuber Steven Crowder. Crowder had frequently made mocking reference to Maza’s sexual orientation in videos he made to rebut Maza’s own videos. Maza felt this was homophobic harassment and called on YouTube to censor Crowder’s channel on the platform.

YouTube initially responded by saying that, while it didn’t endorse Crowder’s actions, they didn’t violate any of its policies and so he wouldn’t be punished. Maza was unhappy about this and made his feelings clear on Twitter. The decision quickly turned into a PR nightmare for YouTube, with most mainstream media reporting the decision as YouTube ‘tolerating’ homophobic content.

This precipitated a major rethink by YouTube, which published a couple of blog posts apparently designed to appease the many critics of its initial decision. The first was headlined ‘Our ongoing work to tackle hate’, which addressed the difficulties of policing so-called ‘hate speech’ on the platform.

“Today, we’re taking another step in our hate speech policy by specifically prohibiting videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status,” announced the post. It also said YouTube is stepping up its efforts to limit the availability of stuff that doesn’t violate its policies, but is still deemed dodgy by its own arbitrary judgment.

While that post didn’t specifically address the Maza/Crowder situation, YouTube’s second one, Taking a harder look at harassment, did and tried to tackle the free speech dilemma at hand. “If we were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech — speech that allows people everywhere to raise their voices, tell their stories, question those in power, and participate in the critical cultural and political conversations of our day,” said the post.

Inevitably, however, YouTube found itself in the position of effectively saying ‘we’re totally in favour of free speech but…’ as all exponents of selective censorship eventually do. “Even if a creator’s content doesn’t violate our community guidelines, we will take a look at the broader context and impact, and if their behavior is egregious and harms the broader community, we may take action,” the post continued.

“In the case of Crowder’s channel, a thorough review over the weekend found that individually, the flagged videos did not violate our Community Guidelines. However, in the subsequent days, we saw the widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behavior, took a deeper look, and made the decision to suspend monetization. In order to be considered for reinstatement, all relevant issues with the channel need to be addressed, including any videos that violate our policies, as well as things like offensive merchandise.”

That last paragraph appears to be a clear attempt to appease its critics, but for those hoping to see Crowder kicked off YouTube, as has happened to many other ‘egregious’ content producers, merely demonetizing the channel was not enough. Maza once more took to Twitter to make his dissatisfaction clear in no uncertain terms. Crowder, meanwhile, invited Vox to subscribe to his channel.

From those two blog posts it does seem like YouTube is genuinely trying to find the optimal point of censorship that will satisfy both Maza and Crowder but this is, of course, impossible. Censorship, by definition, involves the imposition of a set of rules and values on other people who may not agree with them. When you also find yourself in the middle of a culture war it’s probably impossible to please anyone, let alone everyone.

One of the challenges of using nebulous neologisms like ‘hate speech’ is that they’re very difficult to define. YouTube attempted to do so in its first post by talking about discrimination against people on the basis of a number of characteristics. Unstated, but always implicit, in such policies is that enforcement is usually one directional – i.e. not all characteristics are subject to protection from ‘hate speech’ – which often leads to claims of bias against those not protected.

More broadly, as soon as a censor acts against a type of speech it then comes under pressure to apply that sanction to each and every other instance of that type under its jurisdiction even-handedly. If it doesn’t then it’s reasonable to conclude there is some bias built into the process, which will displease those who consider themselves adversely affected by it.

Another major issue social media censorship raises is the status of services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They are currently legally positioned at ‘platforms’ which means they’re not responsible for the content they host. As they increasingly act in an editorial capacity, however, there is a good argument that they should be reclassified as publishers, which would fundamentally undermine their whole model.

As we wrote yesterday, those calling for censorship should be careful what they wish for since it could one day be applied to them. Maza wants Crowder to be censored for harassing him, but himself recently called for the harassment of people whose politics he disapproves of. Under these new rules should he not be punished too?

We will leave you, appropriately enough, with a couple of YouTube clips. The first features Crowder discussing the matter with independent journalist Tim Pool, who is sympathetic to him but is more interested in exploring some of the broader issues this case highlights. The second is an excerpt from a recent podcast published by Joe Rogan, in which he and leftist commentator David Pakman wrestle with the complexities of the matter. Both illustrate the impossible position YouTube has put itself in by acting as a censor.

 

Four Chinese operators are awarded 5G licences

All the four incumbent telecom operators in China received commercial 5G licences, raising the curtain on the commercial rollout of the next generation mobile networks in the world’s biggest telecom market.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, both the government policy making body and the telecom regulator in China, announced earlier this week that 5G licences would be awarded soon. It turned out the market did not need to wait for too long. On Thursday, 6 June 2019, all the four state-owned telecom operators were awarded 5G commercial licences. These include China Mobile, the world’s biggest mobile operator by subscriber numbers, China Telecom, the world’s largest integrated telecom operator by subscriber numbers, China Broadcasting Network Corporation Ltd, the state broadcaster which was awarded a basic telecom service licence in 2016, and China Unicom.

Three of them (except for Broadcasting Network) received 5G trial licences at the end of 2018. Trials by China Telecom and China Unicom were conducted on the 3.5GHz band, while China Mobile conducted its trials on the 2.6GHz and 4.9GHz bands. The consensus at that time was China would not roll out commercial 5G services until 2020 when all the major standalone (SA) mode standards are frozen. The latest move looks to be pushing the schedule forward.

Earlier this year, China Telecom announced that it had live trialled out 5G in 17 cities. China Unicom announced that it would extensively cover seven cities with 5G and cover the hotspots in 33 more cities. China Mobile also pledged to cover 40 cities with 5G. China Unicom has also certified six 5G smartphones and five industrial terminals.

The Minister for Industry and Information Technology spoke at the ceremony that China “will continue to welcome overseas enterprises to participate in the rollout of China’s 5G networks”. But the largest beneficiaries are expected to be China’s leading equipment vendors Huawei and ZTE, both of which quickly pledged their full support to the Chinese operators with their “end-to-end 5G capabilities”.

Nokia and Ericsson, both with sizeable footprints in China’s 3G and 4G networks, may carry the investors’ expectations to maximise their shares in the Chinese market, but may feel the heat of the ongoing trade war between the US and China and the exclusion of Huawei from 5G in a number of western markets. On the other hand, if the sanction is not lifted fast enough, despite the claim that it has built a stockpile of components, Huawei may soon find it difficult to supply the equipment needed by the Chinese operators.

YouTube is stuck in the middle of a war between mainstream media and independent creators

Internet platforms have become proxies in a culture war between corporate-backed commentators and independent ones.

The latest round in this battle has been fought on YouTube, specifically between a journalist who works for Vox called Carlos Maza and a YouTuber called Stephen Crowder. In a series of recent tweets Maza accused Crowder of homophobic harassment and called on YouTube to punish his channel for violating its own rules on such things.

 

YouTube eventually responded via Twitter by saying that, while it can see why Maza would feel hurt by some of Crowder’s comments, they didn’t violate its policies and thus would not be punished. It stressed that, as an open platform, it can’t punish everything that may be considered offensive and that refusing to take down a video was in no way a corporate endorsement of its content.  

The reason this is a big deal is that it touches on a lot of the cultural divisions currently being played out over, and probably exacerbated by, social media. Not only do the two protagonists seem to be on opposite sides of the political divide, they seem to be culturally and personally opposed to each other too. On top of that Vox Media has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in finding and has US giant Comcast as a significant minority shareholder, while Crowder claims to be entirely funded by subscriptions and merchandise sales.

So in many ways these two people are viewed as proxies in the broader culture war and whichever way YouTube went on this would be viewed as a victory for one team or the other. This dispute, and others like it, also serve as test cases for internet censorship in general – specifically what sort of content should be censored.

Maza argues that, by frequently referring to his sexual orientation, Crowder is being homophobic and that a failure to act against such speech is, in itself, essentially homophobic. Crowder, in the video below, says that’s ‘friendly ribbing’ and says he figured referring to his sexual orientation wouldn’t be an issue since Maza’s own Twitter handle is ‘@gaywonk’.

Crowder goes on to use comedy as a defence, which really cuts to the heart of the censorship debate. A core component of much comedy is pushing boundaries and saying the unsayable. Social platforms and national laws have a wide range of attitudes towards comedy and definitions of speech that shouldn’t be allowed and there’s no clear consensus.

YouTube seems to be more concerned about upsetting its big advertisers than policing speech, which is why it usually opts to demonetize contentious content rather than ban it outright. For this reason many independent YouTubers, such as Tim Pool below, are upset at Maza because they think he’s trying to provoke YouTube into demonetizing the kind of content they produce, as opposed to his own, of course.

Maza himself doesn’t seem to have made a video addressing this issue, although he has made his displeasure at YouTube’s decision abundantly clear on Twitter. But he has had plenty to say on the culture war being fought over social media in the past, of which the following video is a good example.

Maza makes a good point about how the algorithms that determine the recommendations we receive on social media sites inevitably lead to polarisation. He concludes, however, with an apparent call for censorship of what he describes as ‘bad apples’. Here we have the essential problem with censorship – deciding who should be censored. You can probably identify who Maza thinks should be censored from the video and his editorial angle, but how confident can he be that he won’t, one day, be identified as a bad apple too, despite his publication’s considerable corporate backing?

As with so many others, the internet censorship debate comes down to where on the freedom-safety continuum you lie. As journalists we are instinctively in favour of as much freedom of speech as possible, while acknowledging there have to be some legal limits to it. It’s therefore surprising to see other media actively calling for increased censorship and we urge them to be careful what they wish for.

Google goes back to ad-supported model for its YouTube Originals

Google seems to come a cropper when it comes to its YouTube content ambitions, announcing all of its Original content will now be available for ‘free’.

As part of the evolution of YouTube, Google attempted something which could have been viewed as quite drastic; it introduced a paywall. For $11.99 a month, users could access ad-free content, Google’s library of music and also its Original content. For a platform which has a reputation for free content, it was a strategy which flew in the face of logic.

However, it would appear this strategy has been less than successful. This is not to say it is dead, but more work needs to be done on the foundations before the palace can be built. Starting at some point this year, YouTube Original content will be available for ‘free’, with adverts, on the YouTube platform for all to view.

“Today, we announced that all new YouTube Original series and specials will soon be available for fans around the world to watch for free with ads — just like they enjoy other content on the platform,” YouTube said in a blog entry.

The paywall business model might be attractive in the long-run, but Google is still a business with investors; it has to make money now as well.

“Presumably YouTube’s gargantuan global audience means its more lucrative to use advertising rather than subs to monetise those shows [YouTube Originals],” said Ed Barton, Chief Analyst at Ovum.

“YouTube has huge audiences in many countries which don’t have much propensity to subscribe to online video services so focusing on advertising presumably unlocks a lot of value in those markets.”

Perhaps this is what we should take away from this move; Google tried to do something new, it didn’t reap the rewards, and now the team is going back to the tried and tested ad-supported model. It was too much self-disruption to stomach is a single sitting.

The content conundrum

Despite content being one of the biggest discussions in the tech world over the last few years, the question of how to make money still remains.

On one side of the fence, you have the paywall business model. There are numerous benefits here, recurring revenues and brand stickiness being the most obvious, though it does also create a sense of authority in the field. This premium perception will be attractive to the content creators, and it does also simplify the process of paying the creators themselves.

However, a paywall does make it more difficult to scale viewing figures and does mean you have to justify the cost to consumers. Dud content is punishable through the trials of social media meaning more attention (and money) much be spent on creating original content.

Looking at the ad-supported model, the practice which drove Google to the behemoth it is today, content is much more accessible and simpler to scale. You also have the advantage of not being punished for suspect-quality content as consumers are being entertained for ‘free’.

But there is also the downside, which mirrors the paywall approach almost perfectly. Content creators will be afraid of de-valuing their work, while there is also the complicated matter of getting paid. Consumers are not necessarily guaranteed to come back, and when you have created a reputation for a free-content provider, shifting users towards premium products becomes much more difficult.

Google’s long-term ambitions

The ad-supported business model has fuelled Google’s growth over the last decade, though it would be stupid to ignore the trends which are in the market.

“Google and YouTube should certainly have an eye on over-arching trends in the content space,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“Traditional content creators are gradually moving towards the world of OTT, and YouTube is the most popular streaming platform on the planet. It has to figure out how to change its perception in the eyes of the consumer, ushering the masses behind the paywall.”

As Pescatore points out, consumers view YouTube as a platform for free content. This engrained perception will present challenges in driving adoption of the premium products, however offering the Original programming for free might work as somewhat of a teaser to justify the expense of a subscription.

YouTube is a platform which can survive by solely focusing on the ad-supported model, however it will be leaving money on the table. Premium streaming services are certainly gaining more traction, creating more value throughout the entire digital ecosystem. Why would Google want to ignore this potential boost to revenues?

Diversification is key for every business, not just the ones who are under financial pressures. Google has consistently shown it is an organization which consistently strives for the new and is not afraid of setbacks.

The movement towards a paywall on the YouTube platform might not have worked for the moment, but there are simply too many gains to ignore. Releasing YouTube Originals as free content might be a smart way to alter the perception of YouTube, demonstrating the value of what is behind the paywall to consumers, and also proving content creators their pride and joy would not be devalued on the platform.

For the moment, Google executives seem to have decided that there is more money in ad-supported revenues than the paywall for YouTube Originals. This might not help long-term ambitions of making the paywall model work, but perhaps it was too much of a drastic step away from the traditional Google business model.

This is a minor set-back, but the YouTube paywall is far from destroyed.

YouTube censorship contributes to disappointing Google numbers

Google holding company Alphabet saw its share price fall by 8% after it announced disappointing Q1 numbers.

The company was fairly elusive about the reasons for a deceleration in its revenue growth on the subsequent revenue call, but many commentators picked up on comments around YouTube as significant.

“YouTube’s top priority is responsibility,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai. “As one example, earlier this year YouTube announced changes that reduce recommendations of content that comes close to violating our guidelines or that misinforms in harmful ways.”

“…while YouTube Clicks continue to grow at a substantial pace in the first quarter, the rate of YouTube Click growth decelerated versus what was a strong Q1 last year reflecting changes that we made in early 2018, which we believe are overall additive to the user and advertiser experience,” said CFO Ruth Porat.

At least one analyst on the call expressed frustration at the lack of further clarity on the reasons why Google’s revenues aren’t what they expected them to be, but the YouTube stuff seems fairly self-explanatory. Pichai made it clear that YouTube is all about reducing perceived harmful content on the platform, while Porat referred to changes made at YouTube in early 2018.

So what were those changes? To YouTubers they were one of many wholesale restrictions on the types of content that are monetised (i.e. have ads served on them), broadly referred to as ‘adpocalypse’. Every now and then a big brand found its ads served against content it disapproved of, resulting in it pulling its ads from YouTube entirely. In the resulting commercial panic YouTube moved to demonetize broad swathes of content.

While this is an understandable immediate reaction to a clear business threat, it also undermines the central concept of YouTube, which is to provide a platform for anyone to publish video. On top of that YouTube increasingly censors its platform, including closing comments, tweaking the recommendation algorithm and sometimes even banning entire channels. These restrictions must surely have contributed to the amount of ad revenue coming in, but Google seems to have decided it’s worth it to keep the big brands sweet.

Here’s some further analysis from prominent YouTuber Tim Pool followed by an example of just the kind of indie creativity YouTube has built its success on (which, to be fair, doesn’t seem to have been demonetised this time). A move towards favouring big corporates over independent producers is a much bigger risk than you might imagine for YouTube, as Google’s disappointing Q1 numbers imply.

 

The politics of technology

The latest mutiny at Google illustrates what a political game technology has become and it’s only going to get more so.

Last week Google announced the creation of ‘An external advisory council to help advance the responsible development of AI.’ In so doing Google was acknowledging a universal concern about the ethics of artificial intelligence, automation, social media and technology in general. It also seemed to be conceding that the answers to these concerns need to be universal too.

The Silicon Valley tech giants are frequently accused of having a political bias in their thinking that is hostile to conservative perspectives. Normally this wouldn’t matter, but since the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter have so much control over how everyone gets their information and opinion, any possible bias in the way they do so becomes a matter of public concern.

In an apparent attempt to demonstrate diversity of viewpoints in this new Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), Google included Kay Coles James, who it describes as ‘a public policy expert with extensive experience working at the local, state and federal levels of government. She’s currently President of The Heritage Foundation, focusing on free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom and national defense.’

This decision has upset over a thousand Google employees, however, who made their feelings publicly known yesterday via a an article titled Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate. The piece accuses James of being ‘anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant’ and linked to three recent tweets of hers as evidence.

Beyond those tweets it’s hard to fully test the veracity of those allegations, but it does seem clear that they are largely political. The Equality Act is a piece of US legislation currently being debated in the US House of Representatives, sponsored almost entirely by members of the Democrat Party. The legal status of transsexual people is intrinsically political, as is immigration policy, and attitudes towards them tend to be similarly polarised.

The Googlers Against Transphobia certainly seem to fall into that category, but what makes them noteworthy, apart from their numbers, is that they expect their employer to adhere to their political positions. Google has attempted to defend the appointment of James to one of the eight ATEAC positions by stressing the importance of diversity of thought.

Here’s what the Google dissidents think of that argument. “This is a weaponization of the language of diversity,” they wrote. “By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making. This is unacceptable.”

This is just the latest internal insurrection Google has faced from its passionately political workforce. Every time a story emerges about Google working on a special search engine for China there is considerable disquiet among the rank and file, ironically opposed to censorship in this case. And then there was the case of James Damore, sacked by Google for trying to start an internal conversation about gender diversity at the company.

Google’s struggles pale when compared to those of Facebook, however. Every time it seems to have just about recovered from the last crisis it finds itself in a new one. The latest was catalysed by the atrocity committed in New Zealand, in which a gunman killed 50 people praying in two mosques in Christchurch and live-streamed himself on Facebook.

Understandably questions were immediately asked about how Facebook could have allowed that streaming to happen. While it acted quickly to ensure the video and any copies of it were taken down, Facebook was under massive pressure to implement measures to ensure such a thing couldn’t happen again. Its response has been to announce ‘a ban on praise, support and representation of white nationalism and white separatism on Facebook and Instagram.’

These kinds of ideologies are largely rejected by mainstream society for many good reasons, but ideologies they remain. Facebook is also moving against claimed ‘anti-vaxxers’, i.e. people who fear the side-effects of vaccines. They may well be misguided in this fear but it is nonetheless an opinion and, so far, as legal one.

Finding itself under pressure to police ideologies and opinions on its platforms, Facebook seems to have realised this is an impossible task. For every ‘unacceptable’ position it acts against there are thousands waiting in the wings and an obvious extrapolation reveals a future Facebook in which very few points of view are permitted. In apparent acknowledgment of that dilemma Facebook recently called on governments to make a call on censorship, but it should be careful what it wishes for.

Another type of content facing increasing calls for censorship is claimed ‘conspiracy theories, with a recent leak revealing how Facebook agonises over such decisions. Google-owned Facebook is also acting against such content, but seems to prefer sanctions short of outright banning, such as the recent removal of videos published by activist Tommy Robinson from all search results.

Again this puts technology companies in the position of censors of content that often has a political nature. How do you define a conspiracy theory anyway and should all of them be censored? Should, for example, the MSNBC network in the US be sanctioned for aggressively pursuing a narrative of President Trump colluding with Russia to win his general election when a two-year investigation has revealed it to be false? Is that not a conspiracy theory too? Politics and technology collide once more.

The current era of political interference in internet platforms was probably started by the Cambridge Analytica and subsequent allegations that the democratic process had been corrupted. As technology increasingly determines how we view and interact with the world this problem is only going to get bigger and it’s hard to see how technology companies can possibly please all of the people all of the time.

Which brings us back to the start of this piece: AI. The only hope internet they have of monitoring the billions of interactions they host per day is through AI-driven automation. But even that has to be programmed by people with their own personal views and ethics and will need to be responsive to public sentiment as it in turn reacts to events.

As the US President has done so much to demonstrate, technology platforms are now the places much of politics and public discussion take place. At the same time they’re owned by commercial organizations with no legal requirement to serve the public. They have to balance pressure from both professional politicians and the politics of their own employees with the dangers of alienating their users if they’re seen to be biased. Something’s got to give.

This dilemma was illustrated well in a recent Joe Rogan podcast featuring Twitter, which you can see below. In it Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his head of content moderation Vijaya Gadde defend themselves from accusations of bias from independent journalist Tim Pool.

 

Social media censorship continues to escalate

In recent days another round of restrictions have been imposed across YouTube and Facebook, with social media companies increasingly being used as proxies in a culture war.

Most recently YouTube announced several new measures related to the safety of minors on YouTube. The main driver seems to be the comments people post on videos, which anyone who uses YouTube knows often range from unsavoury to downright deranged. The specific issue regards those comments on videos that feature minors, so YouTube has disabled all comments on tens of millions of such videos.

On top of that millions of existing comments have been deleted, and a bunch of channels judged to have produced content that could be harmful to minors have been banned, which indicates this is not a new issue. YouTube tends to take its most strident action when its advertising revenues are threatened and a recent exposé on this topic prompted major advertisers, including AT&T, to cancel their deals, hence this announcement.

While YouTube has always been quick to protect its ad revenues, it has historically been less keen to censor comments or ban creators outright, so this definitely marks an escalation. The same can’t be said for Facebook, which seems to be the major platform most inclined to censor at the first sign of trouble. An endless stream of scandals over the past year or two have taken their toll on the company, whichis now in a constant state of fire-fighting.

Facebook’s most recent piece of censorship concerns Tommy Robinson, a controversial UK public figure who concerns himself largely with investigating the negative effects of mass immigration. He recently published a documentary criticising the BBC on YouTube, and presumably promoted it via Facebook and Facebook-owned Instragram, because the latter two platforms decided that was enough to earn him a permanent ban.

 

In a press release entitled ‘Removing Tommy Robinson’s Page and Profile for Violating Our Community Standards’, published the day after Robinson released his video, Facebook explained that he had repeatedly violated its Ts and Cs by indulging in ill-defined activities such a ‘organised hate’. This seems to be a neologism for some kind of rabble-rousing combined with perceived bigotry.

“This is not a decision we take lightly, but individuals and organizations that attack others on the basis of who they are have no place on Facebook or Instagram,” concludes the press release. This sets an interesting precedent for Facebook as a significant proportion of the content generally found on social media seems to match that description. As is so often the case with any censorship decision, one is left wondering why some people are punished and others aren’t, as YouTuber Argon of Akkad, recently kicked off micro-payments platform Patreon, explores below.

 

There is a growing body of research that points to many of these decisions having a political or cultural bias. Quillette, an independent site that publishes analytical essays and research, recently ran with a series entitled ‘Who controls the platform’, which culminated in a piece headlined ‘It Isn’t Your Imagination: Twitter Treats Conservatives More Harshly Than Liberals’.

The piece detailed some statistical analysis undertaken by the author to see if there is any solid evidence of bias. Using stated preference for a candidate in the 2016 US presidential election, it was concluded that Trump supporters are four times more likely to be banned that Clinton ones. The piece also highlights some examples of apparently clear braking of Twitter’s rules that nonetheless went unpunished, once more calling into question the consistency of these censorship decisions.

Investigative group Project Veritas, which had previously claimed to have uncovered evidence of ‘shadowbanning’ – i.e. making content from certain accounts harder to find without banning them entirely – has now moved on to Facebook. From apparently the same inside source comes the allegation that Facebook indulges in ‘deboosting’, which seems to amount to much the same thing. You can watch an analysis of this latest report from independent journalist Tim Pool below.

 

Nick Monroe, another independent journalist whose preferred platform is Twitter, recently reported that “A UK group called Resisting Hate is trying to target my twitter account.” Resisting Hate apparently compiles lists of people it thinks should be banned from various platforms and then coordinates its members to send complaints to the platforms about them.

 

It seems likely that this mechanism is a major contributing factor to any imbalance in the censoring process. All social media platforms will have algorithms that identify certain stigmatised words and phrases and automatically censor content that contains them, but as even the UK police have shown, that is a very crude without the ability to understand context. They therefore rely heavily on their reporting mechanisms, a process that intrinsically open to abuse by groups with a clear agenda.

And it looks like calls for censorship are starting to spread beyond just single-issue activist groups into the mainstream media – the one set of people you would previously have imagined would be most opposed to censorship. Tim Pool, once more, flags up a piece published by tech site Wired that, quite rightly, flags up the inconsistency of the censorship process, but then takes the step of calling out some other ‘far right activists’ it thinks Facebook should ban while it’s at it.  

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently did the interview rounds, including with several independent podcasters. While he was generally viewed as being a bit too evasive, he did concede that a censorship process which relies heavily on third party is flawed and open to abuse. The problem is there is now so much commercial, regulatory and political scrutiny on the big social media platforms that they have to be seen to act when ‘problematic’ content is flagged up.

You don’t need to spend much time on social media to realise that it’s the battle ground for a culture war between those in favour of (selective) censorship and those who want speech to be as free as possible. There is unlikely to ever be a clear winner, but there is little evidence that censorship ever achieves the outcomes it claims to desire: protecting people from harm.

Nobody is forced to consume any content they don’t like and censorship never changes anyone’s mind – it just drives speech and ideas underground and, if anything, entrenches the positions of those who hold them. To sign off we must give a nod to the hugely popular podcaster Joe Rogan, who recently conducted a 4-5 hour live stream with Alex Jones, a polarising figure that has been kicked off pretty much every platform. You can watch it below or not – it’s your choice.

 

Google investors slightly spooked by free-spending execs

Revenues might well be booming again at Google, but it seems shareholders are slightly concerned by increased costs, which is one of the fastest growing columns in the spreadsheet.

Looking at the final quarter, revenues stood at $39.3 billion, up 22% year-on-year, though traffic acquisition costs (TAC), what Google pays to make sure it is the dominant search engine across all platforms, operating systems and devices, were up by over $1 billion. Cost-per-click on Google properties were also down. A glimmering ray of sunshine was higher-than-expected seasonal growth for premium YouTube products and services.

Total revenues for 12 months ending December 31 stood at $136.8 billion, up 23% over 2017, while net income was back up to the levels which one would expect at Google, raking in $30.7 billion. The company is not growing as quickly as it used to, while expenses are starting to stack up. Investors clearly aren’t the happiest of bunnies as share price declined 3.1% in overnight trading.

“Operating expenses were $13.2 billion, up 27% year-over-year,” said Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat. “The biggest increase was in R&D expenses, with the larger driver being headcount growth, followed by the accrual of compensation expenses to reflect increases in the valuation of equity in certain Other Bets.

“Growth in Sales and marketing expenses reflect increases in sales and marketing headcount primarily for Cloud and Ads followed by advertising investments mainly in Search and the Assistant.”

Headcount by the end of the last period was up by more than 18,000 employees to 98,771. While CEO Sundar Pichai was keen to point out the business is continuing to invest in improving its core search product, diversification efforts into areas such as the smart speaker market, cloud and artificial intelligence are hitting home. Perhaps investors have forgotten what it’s like to search for the next big idea.

For years, Google plundering the bank accounts with little profit to offer. These days are a long-distant memory, but it is the same for every business which is targeting astronomical growth. You have to perfect the product and then scale. A dip in share price perhaps indicates shareholders have forgotten this concept, but Google is doing the right thing for everyone involved.

Some businesses search for differentiation and diversification when they have to, some do it because they have ambition to remain on top. Those who are searching because they have to are most likely reporting static or declining numbers each month and did not have the vision to see the good days would not last forever. Google is pumping cash into the next idea so when growth in its core business starts to flatten, something else can pick up the slack and pull the business towards more astronomical growth.

This is what is so remarkable about the ‘other bets’ column on the spreadsheets. It might have costs growth every single year, as does the wider R&D column, but having graduated the cloud computing business and most recently Loon, there are businesses which will start to contribute more than they are detracting. This is a company which never sits still, and this is why it is one of the most admired organizations from an entrepreneurial perspective. Shareholders might do well remembering this every now and then.

Looking at joy around the world for the final quarter, US revenues were $18.7 billion, up 21% year-over-year, while EMEA brought in $12.4 billion, up 20% and APAC accounted for $6.1 billion, up 29%. Revenues in LATAM were $2.2 billion, up 16% year-over-year. APAC and LATAM were subject to negative FX fluctuations, particularly in Australia, Brazil and Argentina.

In the specific business units, Google Sites revenues were $27 billion in the quarter, up 22%, with mobile collecting the lion’s share, though YouTube and Desktop contributing growth also. Cloud, Hardware and Play drove the growth in the ‘other’ revenues for Google, collecting $6.5 billion, up 31% year-over-year for the final quarter.

Although these diversification efforts are growing positively, there are also some risks to bear in mind. Firstly, the cloud computing business is losing pace with Microsoft and AWS. Google is making investments to attempt to buy its way through the chasm, but it will be tough going as both these businesses make positive steps forward also.

Secondly, some properties and developers are choosing to circumnavigate the Google Play Store, instead taking their titles direct to the consumer. This is only a minor segment of the pie for the moment and there will be a very small proportion of the total who actually have the footprint to do this (Fortnite for example), though it is a trend the team will want to keep an eye on. Perhaps the 30% commission Google charges developers will be reconsidered to stem dissenting ideas.

Finally, the data sharing economy which will sit behind the smart speaker and smart home ecosystem is facing a possible threat. Google will not make the desired billions from hardware sales, but it will from the operating systems and virtual assistant powering the devices. Collecting referral fees and connecting buyers with sellers is what Google does very well, though this business model might be under threat from new data protection and privacy regulations.

The final one is not just a challenge to the potential billions hidden between the cushions in the smart home’s virtual sofa, but the entire internet economy. GDPR complaints are currently being considered and potential consequences to how personal data is collected, processed and stored are already being considered. The Google lawyers will have to be on tip-top form to minimise the disruption to the business, and wider data sharing economy.

Costs might be up and while there are dark clouds on the horizon, Pichai and his executives are moving in the right direction. The lawyers can lesson the potential impact of regulation, but the exploration encouraged by the management team in the ‘other bets’ segment is what will fuel Google in the future. Costs should be controlled, but spending should also be encouraged.